Synagogue Review: Hippies in suits


Jun. 19, 2005

I attended services at Lehu Niranena Synagogue ("let us go up and sing") in Givat Shmuel three years ago, and was impressed by the depth and beauty I found there, telling all and sundry that I thought it was "the best Carlebach minyan I had ever attended" (and let me say that I love them all).

I never forgot that Shabbat and often wondered if it was really as amazing as the pictures in my mind, or if my memory could have been playing tricks with me, since so many things seem larger than life with distance and nostalgia.

When, in the interests of writing a synagogue review, I requested to spend Shabbat there once again, I arrived full of objectivity, yet I came away once again with the same sense of awe and mystery.

What, I wondered, was the magic ingredient? What was it that made a synagogue in a dormitory suburb, in a simple caravan, with a core congregation of National Religious professionals, both sabras and olim, explode into an oasis of spirituality as soon as the services began? And what made the euphoric feeling of "Shabbes" remain throughout the entire 26 hours, what made me want to get up early and not miss a single service?

Obviously the music of the prayers was a key feature in my enjoyment. Tunes are varied; the standard Carlebach repertoire is mixed with melodies by Jerusalemite Haim David Saracik as well as those traditional to other hassidic sects such as Gur.

Perhaps it is the warm welcome offered by the community. There are three Anglo families on the hospitality committee, I was honored to be invited to the homes of all three.

One of these families is that of American-born Dr. Baruch Kaplan, who, in 1998 found himself walking
several kilometers to the Ramat Gan Yeshiva every Friday night with his neighbor Israeli Shlomo Galernter, to attend services enlivened by the familiar Carlebach tunes they had come to know and love. Kaplan and Galernter asked themselves – and each other – why they couldn't have such a minyan closer to home.

Forming a partnership, they consulted their local religious council and were allocated a tiny caravan in Givat Shmuel. They began with Friday night services, progressing rapidly to such an extent that they were eventually assigned a larger caravan in the courtyard of the Moreshet Zevulun Mamlachti Dati school.

Today Givat Shmuel, which lies at the intersection of Bnai Brak, Petah Tikva, Givatayim and Ramat Gan is home to probably the largest and most popular Carlebach minyan in the country. Their Shabbat services accommodate 400-450 participants on a Friday night, 100 of whom have to pray outside. On weekdays there are five morning minyans and another three for mincha and ma'ariv. The community has plans for a larger space of its own, and is presently raising funds to make its dream come true.

Famous visitors to pass through the doors of Lehu Niranena's 160 sq.m caravan in recent years include Chief Rabbi of the IDF Israel Weiss, former chief rabbi Israel Lau, Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, various leading rosh yeshivas including rabbis Haim Sabbato, Elisha Aviner, Mordechai Greenberg and scholar and physician Avraham Steinberg.

Sitting at the Kaplan's table with their delightful children, I tried to understand what was so special about Lehu Niranena.

"We are not democratic," says Kaplan, "what we have in the synagogue is a strong leadership. There is constant direction, and the shul policies can't change depending on new committees elected annually."

And because there is no democracy, no one can vote against the policy that there are no name places on the seats and they are filled on a first come first serve basis, except on Jewish holidays, when places must be booked in advance.

The feeling is that there is not one shaliach tzibur, but that everyone actively participates in the davening.

Perhaps I could conclude that in some cases, a lack of democracy actually pays.

The core community combines with students from neighboring Bar Ilan University, soldiers, teenagers, hasidim and haredim from Bnei Brak, and anyone who cares to drop in. Both the situation of Givat Shmuel and Lehu Niranena's well-publicized open door policy ensure a constant stream of new attendees. Children of all ages are welcome and their silence during prayer is ensured – as is that of anyone who might be tempted to catch up on the week's news – both by an abundance of polite signs requesting quiet and constant shushing, says Kaplan's wife Koti, also a doctor.

Kaplan, who in his non-Shabbat mode is a dermatologic surgeon specializing in skin cancer (in fact, one of the three American-certified Moh's surgeons in the country) defines his dedication to both his pursuits, "As a physician you are committed to healing both the physical and spiritual."

A resident of the Old City of Jerusalem spent Shabbat in Givat Shmuel recently and told me that what he found special was the fact that although the participants were Carlebachniks, they didn't "hang out all day long playing guitar and saying 'gevalt,'" (a classic caricature of the Carlebach type), they were not hippies, but professional people with busy careers and full lives. Interestingly enough, Kaplan had also told me that one of the visiting rabbis had once defined the congregants of Lehu Niranena as "hippies in suits."

But does all this add up, and what is the secret ingredient? I would say it is the spirit of Shabbat. During my stay I was reminded of a tale about the Baal Shem Tov, who sent one of his hassidim on a journey. The hassid was shipwrecked on an island, which while containing buildings, was completely deserted. Only once the Shabbat came in did the island come to life in the most exquisite way.

That is not to say that Givat Shmuel was deserted before Shabbat. On the contrary, this Tel Aviv suburb has a lively population of 22,000. But the magical feeling that descended upon it like a Shabbat blanket when the evening prayer began is illustrated by that story.

But don't take my word for it. Call Baruch and Lisita Schreiber on (03) 532 0550, Yossi and Mona Schreiber on (03) 532 3576, Shlomo Galernter on (03) 532 0832 or email Baruch and Koti Kaplan at, and find out for yourself.

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